Interstate 77 is a vital connective corridor for people and commerce across South Carolina. The question is: can it also be a conduit for better economic development, teamwork and even more growth? A new organization, the I-77 Alliance, is designed to exploit the interstate’s possibilities in just that way. It brings together four counties that share the interstate in a new kind of economic development group, in hopes that their common physical connection –– the highway –– will bring better economic prospects for all.
The organization will primarily be involved in marketing the region to generate new economic development leads for the four counties involved: Richland, Fairfield, Chester and York. This effort will involve getting the word out in the economic development community and making one-to-one contact with key players in site selection and business location searches. According to Rich Fletcher, the first president and chief executive officer for the alliance, after leads on possible new investments are generated, it will fall on the individual counties, working in concert with the S.C. Commerce Department and any regional alliances that are helping to take the ensuing steps to bring in the business.
“Ultimately, it’s up to each county to close deals,” says Nelson Lindsay, director of economic development for Richland County. Richland joined the alliance in 2013, giving the group a set of four different counties, each with its own economic development assets.
The county offers an urban area that is central to the state and a well-educated workforce, thanks to the University of South Carolina and many other educational institutions. It also acts as a strong transportation midpoint, Nelson notes, with I-77 and the other interstates that come together there, the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, two railroad lines and simple access to the Port of Charleston.
“We then have Fairfield County which has a more rural nature and larger available areas close to the interstate that could welcome a major new project,” Rich says. “It boasts one of the state’s top pieces of energy grid infrastructure, the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant, which is adding two new reactors.”
Chester County is also more rural and has more large sites of investment-ready land. The county welcomed one of the largest investments in 2014 to one of those sites, the Giti Tire plant, a $560 million investment that is projected to create 1,700 jobs over the next decade.
York County is more urban and a part of the Charlotte metropolitan area. While it has numerous high-end manufacturing facilities, it is also welcoming office tenants that like both its proximity to Charlotte and lower costs and incentives.
With such a diverse set of counties and anchors set in two different metropolitan areas, what brings the I-77 Alliance together? Most regional alliances in South Carolina are built around an area of greater similarity. Richland County, for instance, continues to be a member of the Central S.C. Alliance, which includes the city of Columbia and nine nearby counties.
An interstate itself is a major economic development asset, and access to one, within just a few miles of a potential site, is vital to many companies looking to locate a new project. Companies want ready-to-go sites with interstate access. That means there are opportunities out there for these counties to find. “In this day and age, companies are focused on time to market,” Rich says. “The I-77 corridor is an untapped market in South Carolina.”
In marketing the corridor together, the alliance can offer more opportunities for a company to find something that it likes. “It will lead to better success in the long run in the counties that cooperate than if, say, York and Richland only see each other as rivals,” Rich explains. “It is great that they see the alliance as an opportunity to work together.”
David Swenson, director of York County Economic Development, also sees the collaboration of the alliance making all the participants better at reeling in projects. “It is most beneficial when we look at these issues together,” he says.
David sees economic growth traveling down I-77 into his county as Charlotte expands and his county uses incentives and lower costs to attract projects. Two new white-collar offices have decided to move to York County in the past year. “It’s a natural progression outward,” David says.
“The team partners will also have opportunities to help each other,” Karlisa Parker asserts, who heads up economic development in Chester County. “If I can’t land it in Chester, I’ll certainly refer it to my partners.”
For Chester County, landing Giti Tire is a major success. Giti Tire is the tenth largest tire manufacturer in the world. It also represents another supplier for Wal-Mart coming to South Carolina to create Made-in-USA products. The company will begin making tires in the second half of 2016.
For Karlisa, the success in bringing Giti Tire was the result of preparation, persistence and perserverance. The I-77 Alliance will need the same to succeed. “The owners of the Carolina I-77 Mega Site kept the massive site intact and invested in the necessary studies and site work to attract companies like Mercedes, Nissan, Fiat, Magna, Volkswagen and Hankook Tire,” Karlisa explains. “But the site was not a fit for them,”
When Giti began considering it for a tire plant, it took collaboration and cooperation across South Carolina to win the deal. Giti liked the location near the interstate with access to good airports in both directions. State and County officials worked tirelessly to craft an incentive plan that would land the company. “Gov. Nikki Haley was very involved and made herself available to get the deal done,” Karlisa says. That kind of hands on attention helped Giti see South Carolina and Chester County as the destination for their new plant. “It was important that we made Giti feel both welcome and wanted,” she says. “We assured them that we would be with them through every step … from permitting to production.”
That kind of attention is how counties in the alliance and South Carolina as a whole can create more economic development projects. Karlisa explains, “We’ll stay right there to help you.”
The design of the I-77 Alliance is different from other economic development organizations in the state. The four county economic development leaders have places on the organization’s board. They see this as a way to make sure the alliance’s marketing efforts are truly in line with the needs of each county.
They also have responsibility to see that the new alliance succeeds, Karlisa says. “If something’s not working, we, as the developers, can make the necessary changes.”
Being a part of the alliance doesn’t mean that a county takes any less of a role in its regional economic development organization, Nelson says. For Richland County, that means that the Central S.C. Alliance will still be playing its role in finding leads and bringing them to fruition. Now, however, the county will have the advantage of another organization out there looking for new projects to land. “The alliance should also generate new discussions with counties outside the Midlands such as York and Chester, and could even lead to collaboration on a number of issues,” Nelson continues. “We’re going to be getting the best of both worlds.”
For Richland County and its two industrial parks in the Northeast, the I-77 Alliance should be able to tap into one of the county’s economic strengths: its location. With the Port of Charleston to the southeast and major highway connections to the North, East and West, Richland County always has had a major location advantage in economic development. That’s something the new I-77 Alliance should draw attention to.
The new alliance, if it works, should get the counties’ names in front of additional prospects. “We create more opportunities when we have somebody marketing for us,” Karlisa says.
When that happens, the economic development leaders know what has to happen next. They need to close those deals themselves. Rich, who formerly worked in economic development with SCANA Corp. and a regional organization, understands what roles the alliance can and cannot play. “The Alliance isn’t in the deal-closing business,” he says. “That’s for the Commerce Department and the counties to do. They know how to sell; what they need are more opportunities.”